Limited anti-Asian bias found in US admissions data

Georgetown analysis, testing argument of Harvard opponents, sees little ethnic gain from SAT-only metric

July 15, 2021
Boston, MS, USA, December 9th 2018-Harvard University was funded in 1636 and named after its first benefactor John Harvard
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Asian American applicants to selective US universities would realise only slight gains in overall admissions rate if acceptances were based solely on standardised test scores, a Georgetown University analysis found.

Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce conducted the review, covering the nation’s 91 most selective institutions, to test a chief argument in a high-profile legal battle involving Harvard University.

The assessment found that Asian Americans collectively would gain perhaps an additional 2 per cent of the slots at those institutions if the SAT test was the only criteria.

It means there is “no strong evidence” that Asian Americans, as a whole, suffer heavily from attempts by Harvard and other universities to value racial diversity in their admissions decisions, the study authors said.

“The bottom line here is: this is a tempest in a teapot,” said Anthony Carnevale, a research professor of public policy at Georgetown who directs the Center on Education and the Workforce. “It’s not there,” he said of the suspected anti-Asian bias of holistic admissions policies.

The finding, however, was met with some outside scepticism. “There is something very funny going on” with the Georgetown numbers, said Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of economics at Duke University who has aided the courtroom fight against Harvard.

Professor Arcidiacono cited 2019 data from the College Board, which produces the SAT, showing that 25 per cent of Asian American students taking the SAT score in the top range of 1400 or above – more than three times the rate of any other racial or ethnic group.

“If admissions were based on academics alone, Harvard and Yale would be over 50 per cent Asian American,” he said.

In its federal court trial, Harvard successfully defended its admissions policy as conforming to standards endorsed by the US Supreme Court. Those guidelines generally allow the consideration of race in admissions decisions as long as race is not a determinative factor.

The case was brought by a group known as Students for Fair Admissions, which has waged other failed battles and is still persisting with cases against the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas at Austin.

The group has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Harvard decision, and the nation’s top court recently asked the Biden administration for its input before it decides whether it will listen to an appeal.

Professor Arcidiacono is among the expert witnesses brought before the court by Students for Fair Admissions to support its contention that Harvard’s policies cost Asian American students the educational opportunities they have earned.

Professor Carnevale has long amplified widespread criticism of the SAT’s wealth-based favouritism and inability to predict college success, and said he used that measure for his study only because it was cited by Harvard’s opponents at the trial.

The Georgetown study did show that admissions based only on SAT scores would mean acceptance by the 91 universities of an additional 20 per cent of their Asian-American applicants. But almost as many Asian Americans who did get accepted would have been excluded with an SAT-only standard, it found.

The apparent discrepancy with the College Board data cited by Professor Arcidiacono, Professor Carnevale said, could be due to factors that include the College Board’s possible inclusion of international students, who are not part of the federal database used for the Georgetown study.

There also could be definitional differences of Asian Americans, he said, given the wide variation in SAT performances associated with individual countries of origin.

That possibility was backed by Genevieve Bonadies Torres of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who testified in support of Harvard in its legal battle. SAT scores highly reflect family income, and Asian Americans of Chinese ethnicity are known to score much better than those of Hmong and Filipino descent, Ms Torres said.

Harvard has many examples, Ms Torres said, of admitted Asian American students who benefit from its holistic admissions review process and the opportunity it provides “to advocate the value of their unique background, heritage and perspective”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I don't know what the 91st most selective university in the US is, but I imagine that the top 5-10 most selective universities matter far more to applicants (and their parents). What would the results have been for the top 5, 10, 25, 50 most selective universities?

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